Tuesday, February 5, 2013

An Ulmer Analogy

Central to Ulmer's apparatus theory is a division of history into three epochs: Orality, Literacy, and Electracy.
A standard practice of his is to create analogies that connect the three epochs showing how we have developed with each epoch:

Orality: church
Literacy: school
Electracy: internet

Orality: religion
Literacy: science
Electracy: entertainment

Orality: faith
Literacy: knowledge
Electracy: fantasy

I love this form of understanding as it relates theoretical knowledge to our personal experience(John Dewey would be proud).

So, I figured if I really understood apparatus theory I should be able to make my own "Ulmer Analogy" and here it is:

Orality: Idea 
Literacy: Storage 
Electracy: Relation

Oral culture developed ideas or concepts.
Literary culture developed a way to store those ideas.
Electrate culture is developing relationships between those stored ideas.

All epochs had ideas, storage, and relationships. The change has to do with which aspects technology aids us in.

In orality the mind is responsible for creating the idea, storing the idea, and accessing the idea. Permanence of ideas is a function of social interaction, they must be passed on to someone. This highlights the importance of rhetoric. Knowledge, to be permanent must be stored in many minds. The relationships between ideas can only happen if a single person has the information to be connected. It is impossible to relate all knowledge because knowledge storage and relation happens solely in the mind. It is certain that many great ideas were lost, and those people that were considered the originators of specific ideas were probably not the first to come up with the idea. They were just the ones still remembered when the tools of literature formed.

In literary culture storage is moved from the mind to a page. Ideas become more complex and diverse. One could build on the knowledge of others and easily pick up where others left off. Relation must still be done in the mind though. All relations that could be made, were made through a human mind. And those things that were related must both reside within a single mind (for a time being at least, read from a page related then forgotten). Cross referencing, translating and map-making, these are tasks of the mind in the literary culture.

In the electrate culture relation is done by technology. Computers relate vast databases, translate statistically(google translate), and create maps automatically. Connections multiply exponentially increasing information density by orders of magnitude. This is "choraspace" the web of interrelated symbols. The extent of this is relating all knowledge with all other knowledge: the creation of a complete map of knowledge. What does that leave for the brain to do?

The mind can focus on what it has done from the beginning: creation, invention, heuristics and.. choice?

Throughout all the epochs the mind had to choose. In oral culture it had to choose what to relay, in literary culture it chose what to store, in electrate culture it chooses what to relate. I am looking for food: I relate my position to the database of restaurants. I am looking for a mate: I relate my desires with a database of others' desires.

Ulmer mentions the "symmetry of history" and the importance of looking back to look forward. We have seen three epochs, does this trend give us predictive powers, could we use "Ulmer Analogies" to predict the future?

With other analogies I didn't get the sense of a next-in-the-series, but with mine I do: Idea, Storage, Relation... Computation.

Technology has repeatedly been given the task of functioning as the mind, and it has taken on the easier tasks, in the next phase it will take on the harder task of computation. You may say, computers are great at computation, but no they really aren't. Computers are incredible at a the small subset of problems that are discrete: definable with ones and zeros. Where there is a clear binary representation, computers are great. But the vast majority of our computation is symbolic, and our symbols are complex and fuzzy. Language is a complex web of ideas and half meaningful relationships isomorphically related to reality and to other languages. Computers can't compute until humans reduce that complexity, till we discretize the concepts and choose the relations. If you study sampling(the science of discretizing) you will find that information is invariably lost in the process. So, if I were to use this analogy as a predictive tool, I would say symbolic computation would be the next technological phase that will change our concept of self and thus bring in a new "Ulmer Epoch".

OK, that was fun :) <--- smiley: an electrate artifact, signifying the importance of "body" and demonstrating the electrate person's unease with literary traditions.

Can you create your own "Ulmer Analogy?" I'd love to know what you come up with.


  1. Even though I am at times struggling to fully understand Ulmer's theories and analogies, I really think your created original analogy seems very logical to me.

    However I am thinking of it in terms of an equation in which electracy (relation) is the answer when ideas (orality) are combined with storage/data (literacy). And in that case, I could propose a point for discussion or a minor alteration.
    Since electracy is essentially a 'skill necessary to exploit the full communicative potential of new media' and a skill is exercised or applied based on what is provided (ideas & storage/data) would it perhaps be valid to either add or substitute 'relation' with 'application'?
    It is just something that makes sense to me and I wanted to hear your opinion on this. I apologize if it does not makes much sense to you :)

    (smiley: my electrate 'self' or avatar)

  2. You got me thinking here, I am not sure I completely follow you, but I'll try :) With my analogy I am showing what major information capability was added with each epoch. In each of the epochs the human mind is left to do much of the work. I think in the electrate epoch, the mind must still apply the ideas and decide what must be related.

    We may control the computer, decide what it does, but that is still controlled by a human mind. I think your concept of "exercise" or "apply" is what I am describing as "computation". In following the analogy further, the next epoch's technology will take over the next major component of information exchange, I propose that it is "computation" which would be the decision making procedure, choosing what to relate, and manipulating symbolic meaning as humans do. It seems that we have come to the same conclusion, but I would be unwilling to say that the technology currently exercises or applies information/knowledge, for now I believe that is still up to the humans(but for how long).

    I would be curious to track the lengths in years of the epochs, are they getting shorter, longer? is there a way we could estimate how long the electrate epoch will last?

  3. You're right in recognizing the power of analogical thinking. In some sense, this is the electrate "thought" process par excellence: metaphoric/allegoric juxtaposition. I think Ulmer would argue that "ideas" and "concepts" are inventions of literacy. This is not to say that classification/definition didn't happen in the minds of pre-literate peoples (I think of the "ecological intelligence" necessary to distinguish the poisonous plants from the edible ones!); it's just to say that the apparatus of literacy augments, reifies, and makes possible that kind of thinking in a sustained manner. But analogical thinking can yield all kinds of great creative fruit. I don't think there's a way of doing it wrong.

    For instance, I like the way you imagine electrate thinking as manifesting the connections of relations... This makes sense based on my own experience of 21st century tech.

    I also like your question about "what is left for the brain to do?" It is one for us to continue thinking about....

  4. Hey Richard, thanks for the comment. Hmm, you are making me rethink my analogy, but I don't know. I think ideas and concepts absolutely formed in the oral mind, but were lost quickly with no way to store them, or only the most important ones to survival remained. The capacity for conceptual thinking was there, and isn't that what orality really is? In developing language we develop a concept of a thing. By creating a vocal utterance associated with an object ( noun ) we create a concept of that thing, a symbolic mental representation. Storage with literacy allows for development for sure, but I would argue that the capacity for conceptual thinking was given to us in the oral age, and the capacity for long term storage was given in the literacy age...